John Corbett reflects on Sarsfield and the Saga of the Kings


During the course of its history, Ireland has seen many wars. Lots of them involved native born citizens rebelling against their British rulers but all of them ended in failure, most notably, The Battle of Kinsale in 1601, which effectively ended the rebellion of O’Neill and O’Donnell.

After the Flight of the aforementioned earls, strong leadership in the Gaelic world was lacking so Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, who took control of the English government after King Charles had been murdered, had no great difficulty in punishing his Irish subjects when he came here in 1649.

As well as gaining land for his supporters, he used the opportunity to chastise those who had mistreated Protestant settlers in the 1641 uprisings more than eight years previously. Cromwell showed no mercy to his foes and he is probably the most hated man ever to feature on the pages of Irish history.

After Cromwell’s departure, things were relatively quiet until the 1690’s when once again the country was engulfed in war. On this occasion it wasn’t a rebellion to rid the country of British rule, but a struggle for the English Crown by two competing monarchs backed up by thousands of soldiers.

As Dominick Behan wrote in his song called “The Sea Around Us:”
Two foreign old monarchs in battle did
Each wanted his head on the back of
a coin.
If the Irish had sense they’d drown
both in the Boyne
And Partition throw into the ocean.
It was a big hit for The Ludlows in the 1970’s.

James II had been on the British throne for three years at a peaceful time but was unable to acquire the confidence or support of his English subjects. One of his aims was to establish Catholic supremacy in his kingdom.
He created confusion in Ireland by appointing Richard Talbot as his deputy. Talbot was determined to root out Protestants in the administration and replace them with Catholics, thus causing consternation among the former who were ready to give their allegiance to James’ son in law, William of Orange, and to fight on his behalf to the bitter end.

William was offered the English Crown and King James fled the country even before his challenger had arrived there. He threw some of the royal regalia into the Thames as he was fleeing. We’re told that it was found by a fisherman, who passed it on to William.

By and large the supporters of James were Catholics and William’s were Protestant.
However the situation wasn’t as clear cut as this. Pope Innocent was a supporter of William and was prepared to give him money for his campaign. In fact, he celebrated a special set of Masses to mark William’s victory at the Boyne.
Papal support for the Williamites is something that rankles people on both sides of the sectarian divide even in modern times. Unionists in particular view William’s successes as a victory for Protestants over Catholics and ignore the papal contribution to the progress of their hero.

The real beneficiary of the struggle was the French king. It suited Louis XIV, to have the English engaged in an internal war, thus giving him an opportunity to consolidate his position in Europe. He was James’s main ally.
William was the leader of The League of Augsburg, a group of nations trying to curb French expansion.
Irish Catholics formed the backbone of the army of King James, augmented by French and Spanish soldiers. William was assisted by Irish Protestants and French Huguenots who joined forces with English, Dutch, Danish and German combatants.

The Huguenots were anxious to strike back at St. Ruth after the severe punishment they had received at his hands. He earned the title: ‘Hammer of the Huguenots’.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own